The Big Issue pivots to support homeless vendors during lockdown

By Ruth Law

The Big Issue Group

London, United Kingdom

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The Big Issue is a weekly magazine based out of London, sold by vulnerable people — either those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness — as a way to earn a living and help them out of poverty. Vendors purchase the magazine with their own money and sell them to the public, at their own profit or loss.

As a result of COVID-19, The Big Issue team had to make the heart-breaking decision to stop selling through these vendors for the foreseeable future for safety reasons. This meant that our income, and theirs, vanished overnight. 

The Big Issue is sold on the streets by vendors vulnerable to homelessness, but COVID-19 meant they could no longer do so.
The Big Issue is sold on the streets by vendors vulnerable to homelessness, but COVID-19 meant they could no longer do so.

Within days, however, we moved at lightning speed to adapt our business model in new and innovative ways to save The Big Issue as an organisation, and to offer a level of support to our vendors through this crisis. Forming a new strategy, we:

  • Created an appeal fund to generate financial support from the public to allow us to continue our work and support vendors, with 50% of the proceeds from these donations going straight to the vendors.

  • Moved the community of public support that The Big Issue vendors normally receive from selling on the street to the digital and social space.

  • Launched a subscription business that allowed consumers to continue buying the magazine whilst vendors were unable to sell. We had this up and running within a matter of hours, offering a three-month subscription for £32.50. We also pushed the option to download a digital edition of the magazine on a weekly basis through Zinio and buy copies through The Big Issue online shop.

  • Looked at other ways to distribute the magazine. This led to speedy deals with ASDA, Sainsburys, McColls, The Co-op, and other leading retail outlets to sell the magazine in retail stores for the first time during the crisis. 

  • Most recently, launched The Big Issue app, to allow people to buy the weekly magazine for £2.99 or subscribe digitally. We have released the app in partnership with Pugpig, who supports this initiative on a pro-bono basis. 

Through the magazine, Web site, and app content we have developed The Big Community, a curated channel on the app and an online content hub, which delivers daily news and weekly features providing hope through positive and inspiring stories. This initiative represents another way in which we innovated to create income streams through paid content services for brands.  

Using celebrities to boost appeal

The editorial team has worked hard and fast to evolve the magazine content to drive increased appeal for the publication. We have drawn in big-name celebrity support on short notice. For example, fitness coach Joe Wicks — of P.E. with Joe and The Body Coach fame — was the cover star for the first issue on the app, and threw his support behind the app and magazine. 

The Body Coach, Joe Wicks, appeared on the cover of the first Big Issue app and supported the magazine personally.
The Body Coach, Joe Wicks, appeared on the cover of the first Big Issue app and supported the magazine personally.

Ricky Gervais and David Attenborough have also been cover stars since the crisis hit, while Armando Iannucci and George Clarke have written exclusive pieces. The covers have been designed with bright colours and arresting headline text to grab the attention of consumers in retail outlets and encourage both shoppers and subscribers to share on their social channels. 

Sir David Attenborough is one of many big names who have appeared on the cover of The Big Issue.
Sir David Attenborough is one of many big names who have appeared on the cover of The Big Issue.

As a well-known and much loved British brand, we created a huge media and social drive for the appeal with our founder, John Bird, as the key spokesperson for the campaign. He drove the news agenda by putting pressure on the government, calling for long-term solutions to homelessness in the UK.

The Big Issue Founder John Bird made personal appeals to the community and government to support its homeless vendors.
The Big Issue Founder John Bird made personal appeals to the community and government to support its homeless vendors.

 We have conducted extensive outreach to celebrities and key influencers and seen big names such as Sir Ian McKellen, Michael Sheen, Armando Iannucci, and many others Tweet their support. 

Sir Ian McKellen was one of many celebrities who Tweeted about The Big Issue campaign during COVID lockdown.
Sir Ian McKellen was one of many celebrities who Tweeted about The Big Issue campaign during COVID lockdown.

Last but not least, we rapidly developed marketing initiatives to drive awareness of the depth of the crisis for our vendors, allowing them to not only sign up for a subscription for themselves but also their loved ones. To this end we developed two campaigns: “I Miss You,” which included our first podcast, and “Sell a Sub,” both of which were executed within six weeks.

Making a big impact

In terms of our commercial results, with generous support from the U.K. public we saw a great response — all through pro bono means and without spending any marketing or sales budget.

In eight weeks, we achieved the following results:

  • 8,000+ subscriptions sold.

  • 9,000+ consumers contributed financially to our appeal.

  • 3,000 app downloads.

  • 8,000+ copies of the magazine sold through retailers.

  • 6 billion total PR reach with more than 4,000 pieces of coverage.

  • 5 million impressions, 290,000 social engagements, and driven an increase of 13% traffic to our site through solely organic reach.

  • We’ve created a whole new audience base and business to support our vendors whilst they are no longer able to sell magazines on the street and kept The Big Issue alive.  

In those eight weeks, we also managed to support over 2,000 vendors in the following ways:

  • Through a mass dispersal of supermarket vouchers.

  • Providing ongoing social and emotional support at this challenging and lonely time. 

  • Helping them understand and access all of the support services available to them at this time, such as access to universal credit. 

  • Helping with utility bills, including electricity, gas, and water bills.

  • Supporting with technology such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, WIFI, or data access to keep them connected during lockdown. 

  • With the funds raised, we have been able to provide vendors with items to keep them entertained and occupied in lockdown, such as art supplies and games and toys for vendors with children.

  • Supporting vendors who were previously rough sleeping (homeless) to settle into new accommodations with some household staples and home comforts. 

At a time of such economic uncertainty, the number of vulnerable people in our society will only grow. The need for The Big Issue now and in the future has never been greater.

About Ruth Law

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